ROCHESTER, N.Y. — When Portland Thorns FC opened their inaugural season in April they had a World Cup veteran at goalkeeper (Karina LeBlanc) and central defense (Rachel Buehler) plus proven veterans at both outside back positions (Nikki Marshall and Marian Dougherty). That left the second center back spot as the question mark. Enter Kat Williamson, 1st round college draft pick from Florida.
“She played in Florida so I had a couple of teammates that played against her and they said she’s the type of player who will get into any tackle for you and sacrifice her body,” LeBlanc said about what she knew of Williamson before becoming her teammate.
And now? “She’s just grown so much this season into a sophisticated defender. She’s smart, she reads the play well. She’s gotten better in the air. We have confidence in her on the field like any other player.”
Williamson, who the Thorns took with the 8th overall pick, said she did not quite foresee her rookie season including starts in every game and an impending start in the championship match.
“That definitely wasn’t what I was envisioning,” Williamson, 24, said following the Thorns’ final training session ahead of Saturday night’s NWSL Championship. “You have the best hopes coming in and I knew that I was going to work as hard as I possibly could. I’ve been really fortunate for the pieces to fall into place.”
Not only did Williamson start every match, she played every minute of the first 20 until Tina Ellertson joined the rotation. In all, Williamson played 1,871 consecutive minutes from the start of the season. But it may have been the first three that were the most harrowing. In the opening match of the season Williamson missed a 3rd minute clearance against FC Kansas City and Renae Cuellar marched in to score the first goal in league history.
“It (was) a bit scary,” she recalled. “But you’ve got to look at each other and know that this is a team thing and you’re going to win as a team and lose as a team.”
The Thorns overcame that early goal to end the season opener with a 1-1 draw. Last weekend, on the same field in Kansas City, they found themselves down 2-0 before rallying to win 3-2 in extra time. Now they have a chance to be the first champions in league history.
One player Williamson has looked at with confidence all season is her central defense partner, Rachel Buehler. Capped over 100 times by the U.S. national team Buehler teamed with Williamson to form a very credible central defense tandem, conceding 25 goals in 22 games.
“We both have a good relationship off the field,” Williamson said about Buehler. “We like to watch video together. We like to talk about the problems of what we need to solve and I think that really helps our chemistry on (the field). We kind of feed off each other and know each other’s tendencies and what we need to do for one and other.”
Head coach Cindy Parlow Cone was asked how the pairing has played off each other. “So well. Rachel has definitely taken her under her wing and just kind of showed her the ropes and the little things about the next level that (Williamson) had to get better at. They complement each other very well and they communicate very well together. It’s been a great two center backs.”
Williamson said she did not know until the day of the first game whether or not she would start the match. But it appears Cone paid her one of the highest compliments even before the season began.
“I told her in preseason ‘I can’t believe you’re a rookie.’ We’re in the final now. She’s not a rookie anymore.”
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